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Buddy or Boss: Which One Are You?

“Wanna grab a bite for lunch?”

“Let’s get a beer after our meeting?”

“We need to discuss your performance.”

“We are here today to execute a written warning regarding your hours.”

While not by any stretch unique questions or conversations with co-workers, they do create a challenge in the people management world as it relates to striking a balance between being a boss or a work buddy or friend. In fact, there is recent evidence that having a best friend at work does increase job satisfaction, effectiveness and productivity. However, should the best friend be with the boss?

This article will share insight on striking a balance between friendships and “super ships” (supervisor relationships) that makes sense for any manager. The old-school mindset of mixing business and pleasure is likely becoming, well, old-school; yet, such a mindset cannot be dismissed either.

The genesis to this new way of thinking is the result of a new focus on employee engagement, the ever-increasing difficulty of being unplugged from electronic devices, and a genuine desire to be friendly thereby more productive in the work force.

This article is for those that are social, want more job satisfaction and have fun while being productive at work.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Understanding “the boss” in work relationships
  2. Determining boundaries
  3. Coaching to boundaries
  4. Shifting toward engagement
  5. Being the best buddy and boss

Buddy or Boss?

Can one be both a buddy and boss?


Should one try to be both?

It depends upon the culture of the organization and the DNA of the boss.

If the organization places a premium on performance first, second and third and fraternizing with the employees is frowned upon, no amount of relationship schmoozing with the team can be productive, likely even counterproductive in the eyes of the company.

It also depends upon an individual’s inherent need to be both liked and respected; their DNA, if you will. Rarely has success come for a boss or manager without being respected in almost any chosen field. Even sometimes, being well-liked goes along with those victories, but only secondarily to respect. The well-liked boss may often struggle with the respect aspect of their job if the primary need is to be liked first. Being everyone’s buddy actually causes disrespect and the short term benefits of being popular are a trade-off that is unwise to make.

Tough Love: Boundaries

Many managers can often be blindsided by the challenging realities of having the “tough love” performance conversations with those with whom they attended an industry trade show while sharing adult beverages. While buying a round or two of drinks can make a boss well-liked, getting too comfortable with the same person who must be given a performance warning can fly in the face of respect. In fact, the person receiving the warning can be downright incredulous toward the boss, wondering how they had the gall to give a warning to someone who was “twerking” with them on the dance floor the prior night.

The balancing act of boss and buddy are among the issues bosses have to face everywhere. The best time to set boundaries is at the moment of becoming or being promoted to a supervisory role. This is a difficult time, and one in which some tough choices between remaining a friend and being a respected boss must be made.

In the fitness industry, it is often nearly impossible to experience success without building close relationships.

However, the boundaries can get blurred by the type of qualities needed for that very success and the relationships that result. Whether it is with clients and members and most certainly with staff, the building blocks of success include favorable relationships. Compassion, enthusiasm, being social, friendly and engaging, warm-hearted, understanding, kind, fun and giving are just few qualities displayed by those serving in this industry that create those favorable relationships. The question remains, however, where to draw the line.

Creating boundaries is paramount to finding the balance between boss and buddy. A supervisor does themselves no favors when it is well known that a direct report of theirs is either regularly seen in the office, more frequently than other direct reports, or worse, out alone with the individual in question around town. False rumors and talking unproductively behind employee’s backs have no real easy solution in an employee boss dynamic. It is a denial of human nature if a buddy relationship is created that appears as though favoritism is being practiced by the boss. When favoritism enters the equation, objectivity in performance assessment and respect of the boss becomes tainted. So why place an undue burden on the team by being too much of a buddy? It is tricky, but there is a way through!

Coaching Boundaries

The boss can discuss March Madness brackets in meetings with their work buddy, especially when both Carolinas make it to the Final Four.

Now, going to the games with that same person can become problematic, not only for the boss but for the peers of the buddy. The buddy can then be categorized as the “teacher’s pet” creating undue friction between the other members of the team. Having a drink with the team of direct reports at a minor league baseball game collectively is no sin and healthy for the team; however, going to dinner alone with a subordinate after the game can create suspicion even if it is a legitimate business dinner.

Lunch, on the other hand, is more within the good boundaries. If a working lunch is conducted during the normal work hours to discuss personal training actual revenue versus budget, that is more acceptable. There is no need to walk on eggs shells either and worrying about one’s every move or with whom bread is broken during the work day.

Trying to be the boss and the buddy simultaneously during work hours is a recipe for failure. That's why it's so important to understand and answer this critical question:

How does an effective leader interact?

Inconsistency and unpredictability of interactions in the boss/buddy role jeopardizes relationships more than it enhances them. It can confusing and de-motivating when it appears that a buddy status is given to a select few or when buddy status is changed and the role of being the boss returns.

Shifting Toward Engagement

According to Christine M. Riordan in her article in the Harvard Business Review (2013),

Research shows that workers are happier in their jobs when they have friendships with co-workers. Employees report that when they have friends at work, their job is more fun, enjoyable, worthwhile, and satisfying. A Gallup survey found that close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50% and people with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to engage fully in their work.

The Disney Institute, of the Walt Disney genealogy, provides leadership courses for bosses to learn about the best practices when ensuring engagement in their theme parks. Their course, Employee Engagement, sends bosses to school to learn about creating a work culture where desired behaviors are consistently demonstrated and engagement is enhanced through high-quality communication and genuine care.

In 2014, Bob Kelleher created a video entitled Who’s Sinking Your Boat? In it, he discusses the importance of tapping into the discretionary effort of employees through engagement, a very worthwhile short video.

He followed up the video with a bestselling book called, I Engage: Your Personal Engagement Roadmap, where he teaches all bosses the importance of getting to know, engage, with employees beyond who they are as just an employee. The lesson is a contrast of views that highlights the importance of being even more engaged with employees. Yet, boss/buddy lines can get even further blurred when leaders get too involved with employees lives outside of the work place.

He proclaims in his next video in late 2016 called, Why Is Your Boat Still Sinking? that despite more money being spent on employee engagement, 68% of employees are still disengaged, emphasizing the need to be more of a buddy/engaged.

Being the Best Buddy… Boss?

Being a work buddy and boss is possible; however, it must be done with an abundance of caution regarding the frequency of saying yes to socializing, dinners or drinks alone. Moderation is the key. Setting appropriate expectations and maintaining a boundary that clearly indicates a leadership/boss position first is crucial. Acting in ways as a buddy that attempt to mask a leadership role does not fool anyone. It causes confusion and it’s not fair to the whole team.

It is lonely at the top for a reason. One can, however, maintain mutual respect and support by not going overboard as the buddy. Ultimately, the question that only the boss can answer is; what is the benefit of putting oneself in a compromising or questionable buddy position while still showing they are engaged with their team?


Riordan, C. M. (July 03, 2013). We All Need Friends at Work. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Kelleher, B. (2016). I-Engage: Your Personal Engagement Roadmap Paperback. Portland Oregon: BLKB Publishing